Developed and Published by Nihon Falcom
Available on PS3, PS Vita, PS4 and PC (Reviewed on PS4)
A boost or fast mode should be something included in every single turn-based JRPG. If there wasn’t one in Trails of Cold Steel, I don’t think I would have liked it as much as I did. This is a very slow-burner of a game, where the pacing can be erratic and uneven, not really picking up in terms of the wider story until Chapter 5 (out of 7). However, the intriguing narrative, endearing characters, and smart combat really help you push through the more sluggish parts of this engrossing JRPG.
The game takes place in the Erebonian Empire, a region that suffers from growing tensions between the opposing noble and reformist factions. You play as Rean Schwarzer, the adopted son of a lesser noble, who enrols in Thors Military Academy. He, along with a number of others, are grouped into the newly formed Class VII made up of both Nobels and commoners alike. Over the course of the game, you will help stop nefarious plots, slowly unraveling the realties of what is actually happening in the Empire. For the most part, the story is told in an easy enough to follow way, even if you, like me, have never played any of the other games in the franchise. The final chapter on the other hand, reveals so many things and people that I honestly didn’t have a clue what a number of it meant. I feel this could have been spread out and explored a bit more for newcomers to the series to understand and follow. Having said that, I was still heavily invested in the plot by the end, which was mainly due to the incredible characters.
It’s usually difficult for JRPG’s to provide a cast of characters where practically everyone is so likeable and relatable. Although there is, like every JRPG, an obnoxiously annoying individual, I’m looking at you Millium. The writing in this game is so strong, that all the characters feel like genuine people with their own opinions and thoughts. Watching them grow and the relationships between them develop, is satisfying to see. None of the core characters feel like an afterthought, so much so that Rean doesn’t really feel like the actual main protagonist, in truth the whole of Class VII are the main protagonists. Machias and Jusis’ dynamic is always fun to watch, while all the others such as Elliot, Laura, Fie and Crow have their own backstories and issues that we witness gradually. It is the games strongest aspect for sure and the game wouldn’t be the same without them.
The gameplay is where the cracks begin to form. First things first, the combat is excellent. The turn-based battles are surprisingly more strategic than I first thought, where once you fully understand the mechanics, you can pull of some great combos and exciting plays. Each character is highly customisable, where you are able to place and remove Quartz (stones which grant buffs and new abilities) at will. This means that you can tailor characters for certain roles, or make them a jack-of-all-trades, which might be useful for one or two people. This can get a bit overwhelming at times when trying to figure out the best build alongside constantly obtaining new quartz. However, it’s a strong and very flexible system.
Each chapter is extremely formulaic, so if you liked Fire Emblem: Three Houses, you will enjoy the experience. You will start each chapter with a free day, allowing you to roam the academy, completing quests and socialising with other students. You will also be required to explore a new floor of the mysterious old schoolhouse, gradually uncovering its secrets. This is followed by a practical exam (battle with conditions) and then the field study. This takes you to different places across the map, completing more quests and gaining an understanding of how the world works and the conflicts within. The gameplay loop is good for the most part, but quest structure leaves a lot to be desired. There was simply too many monotonous fetch quests and monster hunts. This is alleviated a lot by the boost mode, but it still isn’t well handled. While there are some hidden gems in there, most of the side quests are forgettable.
I enjoyed my 55 hours with Trails of Cold Steel quite a bit. The story, characters and combat is where the game truly shines. Seeing and unraveling the mystery’s and conflicts between the factions and other organisations kept me wanting more, pushing me through the often sluggish and repetitive gameplay loop. The characters of Class VII are interesting and relatable individuals, forced to work together but develop a strong connection by the end. While I would have liked much more quest variety and gameplay structure, I couldn’t help but obsess over the brilliant writing that helped bring this world and all its depth to life.
Score = 8/10
Follow me on Twitter.
Follow me on Instagram.
Check out my Facebook Page.